BBC4's documentary last night on Lee Atwater, the man who ran the first campaign for George Bush Senior, showed in chilling detail the tactics that the Republicans used back in the 1970s and 1980s and continue to use today.
Atwater was a young, dynamic political strategist who advised Presidents Reagan and Bush 1, invented the push poll, and was one of the most ruthless campaigners of his day. He was man who ran the winning campaign for Bush 1 – he destroyed Michael Dukakis and countless other Democrats over the years with often unfounded allegations, designed to scare the hell out of voters and bring them over to the Republicans. But the brutal methods he employed weren't just partisan. He happily employed them against fellow Republicans who opposed his candidate, such as Senator Bob Dole in the 1988 presidential primary.
However, halfway through Bush's first term Atwater fell ill with brain cancer, and converted to Catholicism. Before he died in 1991 he recognised the error of his ways and apologised to the many people that had suffered from his harsh tactics.
Sadly, his Republican colleagues did not take this death-bed revelation on board. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a cultural war against Bill Clinton throughout the 1990s. Bush 2's campaign manager Karl Rove was one of Atwater's key contemporaries and he used the same if not worse kind of political terrorism against John McCain in the 2000 primary race, Al Gore in the 2000 election, and most despicably against John Kerry in the 2004 election. One ray of hope was Bob Dole. He ran a lacklustre campaign against Clinton in 1996, and shied away from extreme Atwateresque methods. He lost.
In 2008, the Republicans are still going down the negative road. Although McCain was a victim of this insidious politics, he seems happy to try it out in the face of a strong Obama lead in the polls. He has recently moved away from the real issues such as economy, healthcare and even national security, to attack Obama's character. When a candidate can only talk about how their opponent is not fit to be president and won't discuss the issues, he knows he's losing. Sadly, these tactics have worked in the past and may do again.
Atwater it seems died for nothing. If his life's work was sordid political machinations designed to destroy the careers of those who opposed his candidate, in death he realised what he had created and tried to put things right. If only modern Republicans had been able to listen to Atwater's confessions to his priest as he lay dying, they may have heard something that would have been really useful in a political campaign.
They may have heard the truth.
By Nick Cooper